Advocates, educators, motivational speakers, college mentors and a female politician recently gathered at the Lower Merion School District's 4th Annual Girls Empowerment Conference to address social justice issues that came to the forefront during the presidential election campaign. Sponsored by the Students Advocating for Gender Equality (SAGE) clubs at Harriton and Lower Merion, the conference drew more than 75 students to discuss ways to address gender inequality in politics and business; discrimination against people of color, the LGBTQ community and other minorities; preventing dating violence; and strengthening skills in technology, negotiations and financial literacy - key areas where girls are underrepresented. Strengthening the body and learning relaxation techniques were also on the agenda as important elements in building confidence and managing stress.
"Ever since the election, people have become bolder about harassing and bullying women, people of color and others from marginalized groups," said Nina McKay, a SAGE leader from Lower Merion High School.
"The conference gave students a chance to talk about actions we could take, personally and collectively, to fight back against discrimination and violence," explained Eliza Barson, a junior and SAGE leader at Harriton High School. "We were inspired by the Women's March and other protests to choose 'Empowerment' as the theme for our conference."
The conference was open to any student in the District in 8th to 12th grades, and a small number of boys attended. Davon Collins, a Lower Merion 10th grade student and SAGE member in attendance said: "To me, feminism is equality for everyone. All genders should attend this conference, especially boys who wouldn't otherwise think about topics that affect women."
A male junior also commented: "Even though some people thought it was strange that I was going to the conference, I had a great experience, met new people and heard interesting stories."
The conference featured workshops that addressed how male-owned media can demean women in leadership positions in business, media and public office. Other programs focused on combatting stereotypes, how social media focuses on women's appearance instead of their capabilities, and how to become an active bystander to prevent sexual violence.
Workshop leaders, who were women professionals and college mentors, advised students on how to respond to rhetoric and policies that demonize others through such strategies as creating alternative media and forming alliances to lobby for change. Many presenters have returned since the inaugural conference four years ago because they find the experience so rewarding.
Presenter Swati Patel, a Wharton MBA student, summed up the experience by saying: "Regardless of whether we were high school or MBA students, we were first and foremost a community of empowerment. While the students learned about workplace and career dynamics from us, we too learned from them. Their thoughtfulness and singularity of focus at a time in life that is often confusing was humbling!"
SAGE is a social justice club that promotes awareness, discussion, and advocacy about social justice issues that intersect with gender, such as gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, race, ethnicity, class, disability, sexism and sexual violence. The four pillars that are the foundation of its mission are:
• Girls Empowerment/Leadership
• LGBTQ+ rights
• Masculinity and Male Ally-ship
For information on how to become involved in SAGE, please contact:
Laura Stiebitz, Lower Merion High School SAGE : firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrea Wilson-Harvey, Harriton High School SAGE: email@example.com